Ever been on a school trip or a coach full of strangers where the air conditioning isn’t working, strong smells are coming from the child in front of you, 30 conversations are happening at once and the driver thinks they are racing for the world championship?
It’s hard enough for most people to focus with bright lights and loud noises all happening at once. But when you suffer from sensory processing issues or Sensory Processing Disorder as it’s medically known, it’s good to know that there are some techniques out there that can help ease the distractions of sensory stimuli. And, that’s true even if you’re the driver and have to focus on the road.
So let’s take a closer look at understanding sensory overload and 5 simple coping strategies for sensory overload on those long journeys!
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Sensory overload happens when you’re overwhelmed by too much stimulation to one or more senses. This causes your brain to become overloaded with information to process, making it difficult to process incoming stimuli. Crowded spaces, multiple conversations and even tactile sensory issues such as heat and seatbelts are all common sensory overload triggers.
While everyone feels stress at times, those with sensory issues feel overwhelming amounts of stress and anxiety over longer periods of time. They might find themselves feeling anxious about everyday situations, or even having panic attacks.
People with sensory issues are often hypersensitive to noise, bright lights, smells and touch. They might also struggle to focus on tasks because their brains are constantly processing information.
When you’re driving for several hours or more, your senses tend to become heightened. The body is constantly having reactions to stimuli such as sights and sounds, which overload the brain – this causes the brain to struggle sensory integration.
Sensory overload can cause a common symptom such as feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression in some people, as well as the more obvious sensory processing difficulties. These vary from person to person and can depend on other medical conditions too. So do note not every coping strategy will work for you. But, it’s worth a try nonetheless!
Coping strategies for too much sensory stimulation like self-soothing techniques (such as listening to music or reading) can help reduce these negative effects of sensory overload on long journeys. These strategies also help you return to a normal state of mind when you’re finished with the journey or your trip ends.
Anyone can experience sensory overload. But it’s especially common among those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Autistic people experience sensory overload more frequently than others. And scientific research and first-hand experiences suggest that sensory overload is more likely to occur in individuals with ASD in the first place.
Autism is associated with hypersensitivity, or greater sensitivity, to sensory input. For example, some autistic people might notice every sound, smell, touch, taste, sight, or feeling around him or her. They might feel overwhelmed by the amount of sensory input. Or they might find it difficult to focus on one thing at a time because there are too many stimuli competing for their attention. These experiences could cause sensory overload.
With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), sensory information competes for the brain’s attention. Someone with ADHD might hear a loud noise, see something bright, or feel a strong breeze. All of these sensations compete for the person’s attention. In turn, he or she might become distracted and miss important information. This can lead to problems focusing on schoolwork, work, sports, or social situations.
Self-soothing techniques are a simple way to reduce the negative effects of overloading the sensory systems. There are many different ways you could use self-soothing techniques, such as listening to music or reading, which help create an internal focus on something else while your senses become more efficient.
Others prefer a more tactile self-soothing approach such as keeping their hands busy. This can be in the form of an activity such as crochet, or playing a games console or using a fidget toy. The best way to find what works for you is by experimenting with different types of self-soothing techniques.
Some people might find it helpful to use these strategies in conjunction with other coping strategies and sensory experiences – like cognitive coping strategies – which we’ll discuss next.
Listening to music is a great way to calm sensory overload
Another way to cope with sensory issues on long journeys is through cognitive coping strategies. You can use cognitive strategies like deep breathing and reframing your thoughts to help relieve stress. These strategies help you return to a normal state of mind when you’re finished with the journey or your trip ends.
You can also use cognitive coping strategies to focus on your surroundings, which can help reduce stress and anxiety. For instance, instead of focusing on how many hours until you arrive at your destination, focus on the people around you in the car – this helps bring back your sense of presence and reality without taking yourself out of it.
It’s also important to focus on your breathing. Breathing is an effective way of calming someone down, decreasing their heart rate and blood pressure, and stimulating their vagus nerve. This nerve runs from the brain stem to the abdomen and controls a number of bodily functions, including digestion and respiration.
Breathing exercises can help bring a sense of calm when it is reacting negatively to stimuli by stimulating calmness. Another coping strategy for sensory overload is shifting your focus from negative thoughts to positive thoughts and meditate in quiet times throughout the journey.
This reduces reduce anxiety in sensitive people by giving you something more positive in which you can invest your attention and energy. When you start focusing on positive things, your body starts producing endorphins that make you feel happy and relaxed.
Breathing techniques can provide a sense of calm, especially to anyone with travel sickness
Eating well and staying hydrated is an important part of coping strategies for sensory overload on long journeys. Eating a good meal before driving can help reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. Being properly hydrated will also help you maintain a normal state of mind, as well as avoid the negative effects of dehydration (such as headaches and fatigue).
As well, getting some sleep can help prevent stress and anxiety from getting out of control. Some people find it helpful to use a sleep aid that induces deep sleep before driving, so they’re not too groggily alert when they start their trip.
Additionally, listening to music or reading can help distract you from unwanted thoughts. If your mind is filled with negative thoughts or worries about your upcoming journey, it can be overwhelming and difficult to focus on driving safely. Think of it as a sensory diet, if you will, where you’re reducing your stimuli to a couple of specific focuses. Quiet time is incredibvly beneficial for calming the senses.
Many people find that a good self-soothing technique for sensory overload is listening to music or reading (If you’re driving then of course, make sure the music becomes background noise).
These are effective because they require little effort and provide temporary relief from the negative effects of sensory overload. It’s important to keep your mind occupied when you’re in a state of intense stress or high anxiety.
You can often engage the sensory diet by focusing on something mindless, like a TV show, book, or game. Sometimes it helps to just turn off your mind and focus on something else entirely. In addition to these strategies, cognitive coping strategies can also help reduce the negative effects of sensory processing issues.
For example, you could write out a list of tasks that you need to accomplish before returning home or create a plan for what you will do when you get there (i.e., talk with family members who are waiting for you).
Information overload can be distracting, especially for drivers on long journeys
Staying alert is an important part of coping with sensory overload. This means getting a good night’s sleep, eating well-balanced meals, and avoiding driving when you are tired or hungry.
If you drive when you are tired or hungry, your mind will be more fragile and your reaction times may be slower. This can lead to dangerous situations on the road.
Give some of these coping strategies a try on your next trip, or even in stressful situations in your daily life, and be surprised how relaxed you’ll feel at the end. By sticking to the basics, you can move on to some more intense techniques like meditation when these become second nature!
Keep reading for more awesome content embracing neurodiversity!
Last Updated on October 21, 2022 by Neurodadversity
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